Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video The road to the first draft, part of 2012 SBIFF Screenwriters' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
Anne Thompson> So, Mike you have a very varied background, music videos and shorts and documentaries, and your movie has a very unusual structure. I mean it moves around, from different timeframes and uses lots of different media. Explain how your background helped you to put that kind of very eclectic structure together. Mike Mills> Well, I do think it comes a lot from going to art school, not to film school. So, like in my film, I use stills or the screen could go to just full color and all that feels very legitimate and actually quite easy to me and as many artists from Christian Boltanski to Hontaka to Hans-Peter Feldmann, all Germans.
But that live in my brain all the time and that excite me and that when I'm writing or thinking about film project, I'm equally thinking of influences like that. So, maybe it's coming from that kind of pool. All kinds of imagery feels very legitimate and intuitive to me. Anne Thompson> But explain a little bit about the structure of this particular movie. Mike Mills> Super confusing. Anne Thompson> Contemporary? Yeah! The contemporary in the past in the way that you chose to move back and forth.
Mike Mills> Well, it's about my father, that's the kernel of it. And just my parents are very bold, wildly interesting, very strong people. Got married in 1955 even though they both knew that my father was gay. That's the foundation of the family and they loved each other very much in other ways but there's this great huge contradiction, that to me is a very historical situation, that's very much an emotional choice, a love, a sex choice that was available to these two people in 1955.
So, the beginning of my project was " What in the hell is 1955 like and how am I going to communicate that to people?" So, I would do these things like well, if I show you a phone from '55, or the president or a pad or the sky, do we now understand '55 and sort of emotional space that led these two brave people to sacrifice so much and get married? And then also I started writing it shortly after my dad passed away and I'm sure a lot of people have experienced this. When someone's gone, especially like a parent, you're not in the present in a clean way.
You're constantly getting hijacked back to our memory and unfinished conversation and unfinished emotional place. So that felt very intuitive, again, to where it was, that kind of time is very fluid, time isn't orderly, time is more emotional than chronological. That sounded good! Will Reiser> Yeah! (Laughter) Mike Mills> I don't think I had ever put it like that. (Applause) By that I just mean I'm not that smart. I'm-- you really just came -- JC Chandor> You really just sit there for the-- Anne Thompson> Only for one second.
Mike Mills> It came -- the process came very intuitively just to where I was and right now I just made myself sound like I had a plan. (Laughter) Anne Thompson> Well, for both of you and Will, how do the films work as therapy for both of you? Were they therapeutic? Was it cathartic to deal with this stuff? Will Reiser> Yeah. I would say it was incredibly therapeutic. I don't think when I sat down to start writing "50/50," which at that time the original title for "50/50" was called "How I Learned Nothing from Cancer." And my whole idea behind the movie was that like people have this great-- there's this great notion that when you survive cancer, you sort ofhavehow-- it's almost like you reach Nirvana.
There's clarity or you have like this understanding of life. And I came of that just feeling like my life had just sort of been wrecked and it was like this emotional tornado swept through my life and I didn't really feel like anything changed. And so I wrote this script in which the main character didn't change; he just sort of stayed the same. And then all of a sudden I am like, "What you're talking about? You're a completely different person." Like, you are like-- you have changed, and that really forced me-- And the main character was me but he wasn't really as close to my voice as Adam ended up actually being.
And in that second draft I went back and I sat down and I started really thinking about what that journey was like for me. And in doing that, it really forced me to say all the things I didn't know how to say while I was sick. Whereas the first draft was just sort of me just sort of vomiting up a lot of the emotion, and this raw emotion, whereas the second draft was really me sort of corralling that and understanding what the experience was like for me. And that was really hard and it was really vulnerable and but in writing the script, it really allowed me to confront and move past that experience.
Anne Thompson> Several of you, Tate you're an actor and Jim you're an actor, explain how being an actor led to being a writer and why that goes together? Tate Taylor> Well, for me, I didn't move to LA till I was 26. I got a late start and I, like Jim, jumped into the Groundlings program. So, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do and what's great about the Groundlings Improvisational Theater Company, so for those of you who don't know, is that you write, direct, and act, and the third year I almost didn't do it because I didn't think I wanted to write and then I quickly learned that that's what I loved.
So, they all go together to me. I can't really separate them. I feel like you have to know how to act to write in a certain way and vice versa. So that's what happened and then slowly my sketches in the Groundlings kept getting longer and longer. They said "These are supposed to be 3 or 5 minutes. You can't have an elephant cross," and I made a short film called "Chicken Party" back in 2004 to see if that's what I wanted to do. And then that was it.
I love filmmaking. I act but don't have headshots in my car. Anne Thompson> So, are you still going to act or is that over at this point? Tate Taylor> No, I'm available. (Laughter) I haven't had time to, really. I just haven't. I'm adapting something right now. So, I bet it's going to go the wayside. I'll be a ham at home at Christmas. Anne Thompson> Jim? Jim Rash> Yeah, for me, yes, to as far as coming through the Groundlings program, that you were exposed to writing sketches and developing characters, which I think for me at least for as the writing started to become something that I was very interested in and sort of going further then 3-5 pages of a sketch into television then into film, was really the development of characters that we had sort of learned at the Groundlings but also as an actor and honing voices and really digging into what makes that person, that character, that way.
So, I think as an actor you're already interested in playing dynamic and interesting people and also the challenge of being seen differently than the way you are. The first time you're out of the gates on television that they're like "Oh, that's what that person does." And I think the mission that became for Matt and I was "let's write something for us." Let's write things that people don't see us as and then develop characters that we know in our lives, which are the best people to pull from because we know them so well and they're so specific, and so as an actor I think you look for that.
So, I guess in that way it went in hand-in-hand for me, to that passion of developing characters I think. Anne Thompson> So, JC, even though you wrote an original screenplay that wasn't really based on your life, you do know the financial world really well. So, talk a little bit about how that story came to you and how it was based on some version of something you really knew. JC Chandor> Yeah, when I write I like to usually kind of do realistic world immersion where I like to go into a topic and I want to understand it from every different angle.
I was at a place in my life personally where I didn't have the time, the energy, or the sort of self belief to actually take 4 months or 5 months and kind of learn about a new world. But this world, that it's sort of been in front of me, through my father working in that world but also my adult life living in New York City, basically over 10 or 15 years watching a lot of my friends get sort of sucked into this gear system and some of them get spit out in sometimes positive ways and other times terribly destructive ways to their life and their confidence.
And these were people who were unbelievably more motivated, successful, smart, well-educated than I was and sort of after 10 years of watching people of my age go through that, and then having watched my father and his friends and friends of mine's parents kind of go through that world, I realized I didn't know anything. Well, not very much, about the sort of actual nuts and bolts of the situation but the emotionally kind of honest reasons why people get drawn into that world, why they stay in that world, what they feel like when you retire from that world, all of those things-- Excuse me.
I realized I had a very deep understanding of and I knew those voices for those characters and interestingly, I started to believe that sort of a greater truth potentially as to why we all got sort of so wrapped up in the last 10 or 15 years of delusional optimism goes back to those very basic human reasons, of why did I walk in the door of this place? Our film has 8 characters. You kind of go up the chain of command.
So, why does Penn Badgley's character, the youngest guy, why is he there? And not just for sort of pure greed, but really, why did every decision along the way, why did he end up there? None of that really ended up being written in a dialogue standpoint into the movie, but hopefully it's there in the sort of subtext. So, it was-- but world's longest answer to a short question, but it was essentially written from a place of I knew everything that I was writing.
I went back of course, but that first draft came from just within, which I think unless you're really skilled writer, that's when you're sort of at you're best. Anne Thompson> Did you ever show it to your father? JC Chandor> I'm hyper, hyper superstitious and I had those other projects fall apart in sort of miserable ways. So, he read it about two weeks before we started principal photography. So, that's very soon.
I didn't tell my wife until about four months until we started shooting, where there was a press release coming out and I though I should finally tell her what I'd been sort of doing. (Laughter) I had to. I joked with her that it was world's fastest development process of a project because it was like I wrote this thing and then I came in the next day, "Somebody wants to make it!" (Laughter) "Kevin Spacey signed on!" Anne Thompson> The point is that you wrote a screenplay that attracted an amazing cast that is willing to work for nothing.
That movie was made for $3.5 million, which is sort of astonishing. JC Chandor> And that was the scripts. So that's the neat thing about where we ended up is the script at that point to get that film made was sort of our only tool. Anne Thompson> Right! JC Chandor> And we used it well.
Moderated by Anne Thompson from indieWIRE, the It Starts with the Script panelists share their stories of script development, writer's block, book adaptation, and, most of all, tenacity, on the way to getting their movies to the screen. Mike Mills (Beginners) tells us about turning his own story about his father into a screenplay. Will Reiser (50/50) also turned a life experience, his personal battle with cancer, into a comedy starring his best friend Seth Rogen. Jim Rash (The Descendants) walks us through his process as he turned the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings into a film nominated for five Academy Awards®. Tate Taylor (The Help) was roommates with author Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the best-selling book; he finished the screenplay (and owned the rights) before the book was even published. Writer J. C. Chandor (Margin Call) wrote about the financial markets, having grown up with his father immersed in that world.
With all of these brilliant writers, "write what you know" became their life's mantra while they worked on their screenplays. They share funny and poignant anecdotes about their experiences and processes on the way to the big screen.